Remembering Kerri Strug's Vault into the Spotlight (on a Bad Ankle) at the 1996 Summer Games

Strug's historic second vault on an already-injured ankle became perhaps the defining moment of the 1996 Summer Games

Photo: Getty

It seems strange in retrospect, but Kerri Strug went into the 1996 Summer Olympics in the shadows.

“You’ll never see Kerri on a Wheaties box,” her coach, Béla Kérolyi, told the Houston Chronicle in July 1996. “She always has been the bridesmaid, never the bride,” 1984 gymnastics gold medalist Mary Lou Retton told PEOPLE at the time.

As a part of the U.S.A. Women’s Gymnastics team, known as the Magnificent Seven, Strug was overshadowed by Shannon Miller and the Dominiques Moceanu and Dawes. Miller was that year’s reigning national champion and on her way to becoming the most decorated American gymnast in history, and Moceanu and Dawes were both former national champions as well.

But Strug, who began training at the age of 3, was thrust into the spotlight during the final rotation of the team competition in Atlanta on July 23, 1996. The U.S. held a .897-point lead over the Russians in a sport where the Russians traditionally dominated and the U.S. had never won.

The first four American gymnasts landed their vaults, but were docked points for cleanliness. Moceanu fell twice, and Strug was the last gymnast to vault for the States.

Strug has said she doesn’t remember her first vault, only the sound of her left ankle giving way on her landing. “There was such momentum,” Strug told Sports Illustrated in 1997, “the bone was shoved forward and then back in place.” Strug had torn two ligaments in her ankle, and was given 30 seconds after her first vault was scored to decide whether to take another. She asked Kérolyi, “Do we need this?”

That was a complicated question. Roza Galieva, the final Russian to perform on the floor, scored poorly enough that the U.S. could have clenched victory without a second vault from Strug. But Galieva performed after Strug, and the U.S.’s coaches, struggling to weigh the risks of further injury to Strug against the historic circumstances, made a tough decision.

“Kerri, we need you to go one more time,” Kérolyi told her.

Strug performed her second vault and heard another snap from her ankle when she landed on both feet. “It felt like a bomb went off,” she recalled to Sports Illustrated.

In what became one of the most iconic moments from the 1996 Games, Strug landed, picked up her injured ankle, made the traditional turn and poses to face the crowd and the judges on one leg, and then collapsed in pain. Kérolyi and her teammates rushed to the floor to surround Strug, and her coach picked up her up, his large frame dwarfing her tiny one, and carried her off the floor while the Georgia Dome’s 30,000-strong crowd chanted her name.

Strug was off the floor when her score was posted. She refused to be taken away for X-rays, saying she wanted to be with her teammates when they received the gold.

“Don’t worry,” Kérolyi told her. “You’re going to the podium. I guarantee it.” He picked her up again and carried her to the podium, where her teammates helped her to stand and accept the gold.

Kérolyi, for his part, believes that Strug’s performance helped change the perception of gymnasts in the national eye. “Always they are nice, they can smile, but when things get tough they run away and cry,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1997.

“This bothers me,” he continued. They are all tigers Kerri was the last probability to show the world the heart of the tiger, but she was the one.”

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